‘Dog whisperer’ trains both dogs, owners

Some of her clients call her “the dog whisperer” after the film, “The Horse Whisperer,” directed by Robert Redford.

Dina Garbis is Malibu’s on-site dog trainer, or “animal behaviorist” as she calls herself.

“It’s true I can tell what a dog is thinking,” said Garbis, smiling. “Some owners are amazed when they tell me they have a mean dog and I walk right in and start petting it.”

Working in Malibu, Garbis has several celebrity clients, including Nicholas Cage and his wife, Patricia Arquette, and director Ridley Scott.

“I don’t just train the dogs, I train the owners,” said Garbis.

Garbis, who stands just over 5’4″ tall, works with some of the most ferocious dogs in town in an attempt to reduce their aggression and behavioral problems.

She earned a bachelor’s in psychology from U.C. Davis, and worked all over Los Angeles before settling into Malibu two years ago.

Human psychology? What does that have to do with dogs?

“A lot,” she explains. “Dogs can read humans very well and when the human owner is giving it the wrong message, the dog gets confused.” For instance, she gives the example of a leashed dog being yanked back by the leash when a stranger approaches the owner.

“The dog thinks ‘This stranger must be a threat–I had better look threatening.’ ” said Garbis.

Garbis demonstrated with her own Chow-mix Golden Retriever as a stranger approached on a bicycle during an interview with The Malibu Times. At first her dog barked, but when she said to the dog, “Com’on, let’s go say hello,” her dog became friendly. She theorized that her dog initially barked because the man wore a backpack, which made him look out of place to the dog, and also was astride a bicycle.

“The worst thing I could have done was yanked back on his leash,” she said.

Garbis is careful to reject the title “dog trainer” in favor of “animal behaviorist,” since she is most often hired to cure a dog’s unwanted behavior.

Garbis grew up in Chico, a rural town in the central valley, and trained all sorts of animals but not dogs. Her family did not have a dog.

“I didn’t have a dog because my parents thought I wouldn’t clean up after it,” said Garbis. “I had horses, rabbits, hamsters, fish, birds, everything else but no dog. I trained each animal–[I] had hamsters that would roll over on cue, chickens that would come if their name was called and so forth.”

The method she gradually taught herself was positive reinforcement, a form of conditioning.

“My first experience with dogs was when I’d go to the stable to ride my horse,” she explained. “I’d end up training all the dogs that were around.”

Her first exposure to the professional side of the dog world came each summer when she would stay with an uncle in Oyster Bay, New York, who was the chief editor of “Dog News,” a national tabloid-sized newspaper.

“He had like 20 dogs, so I learned all about dogs from him,” said Garbis.

In 1992, she moved to Los Angeles, and in 1998 was invited by a Malibu dog owner to move into his home so she could train his dogs. “Don’t think of me as a dog nanny,” she cautions. “I solve dog problems.”

The dogs she takes care of daily are a black Labrador and a chocolate Labrador, both easy breeds to work with, but she has worked with some of the reportedly toughest, including Doberman pinschers, Rottweilers and Chows. Actually, she says, cocker spaniels have the biggest bite rate, but you don’t hear about that because they are not as ferocious looking or don’t inflict as much damage as a pit bull or Rottweiler.

“Some dogs,” she said, “have a reputation for being mean dogs, but in reality the dog’s attitude is all in the early socialization of the dog. If the owner acts wrong around the dog, then he or she teaches the dog all the wrong things.”

A real problem dog, she points out, is one that was treated badly before you obtained it–say, beaten with a stick or neglected.

“I have turned dogs around, unlearned their bad behavior,” she said.

But she has one caveat–she will refuse to work with a dog unless the owner is willing to participate in some or all of the sessions.

“It doesn’t do any good to train the dog and the dog responds only to the trainer,” she said. “I have to work with the owner so the dog responds to the owner.”

“Effective dog training is 10 percent dog and 90 percent owner,” she said.

Should you jog with your dog?

“No,” she says emphatically. “Except for greyhounds, dogs aren’t made to run as long as humans do. They can run for maybe 10 minutes and need a rest or they will get dehydrated.”

A partial solution is to bring along water and water the dog periodically during the run.

“Or just walk fast,” she says, “it’s easier on the dog.”

A large part of her job is training dogs to do simple things, like sit on command.

“A lot of people try to train a dog to ‘sit’ out of fear,” she said. “That doesn’t work. You want to train the dog so he is proud to sit by his owner, not sit because he is fearful of what will happen if he doesn’t sit.”

Garbis begins each job by finding out what the owner’s goal is with the dog.

“If I see that the goal is realizable, then we can work out a program,” she said.

Her rates vary according to the goal the owner is trying to reach. Currently she has 30 clients, a workload that keeps her busy from 7:30 a.m. until sundown seven days a week.

“Some of my clients want me to come and work with them and their dog when they first get up,” she said.

In addition to her dog duties, the blonde dynamo has a second occupation: chanteuse/songwriter. Garbis recently sang at a Century City jazz club, Lunaria , with Bette Midler’s Harlettes singing back-up. She also is recording her first original album, featuring songs she has written and recently appeared as a singer in a TV movie pilot with Dick Van Patten.

Garbis has studied acting with Howard Fine and has accumulated several screen credits, but at present, dogs are her life.

“I’m writing a book about what I know about dogs,” she said. “I plan to emphasize what not to do as well as what to do.”

Because of her love for dogs, she’s also producing a charity benefit called “Project Dog Sing,” in which the proceeds will go to Seeing Eye dog programs.

“As they say in the trades, ‘there are several celebrities already attached to the project,’ ” she said.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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